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Vision takes shape at Discovery Park of America

Vision takes shape at Discovery Park of America

Posted: Wednesday, October 12, 2011 10:51 pm

Special Features Editor
When art and science can be induced to blend, something wonderful happens.
Louis Sirianni likens the emotional payoff of such a successful effort, for an architect and those who collaborate with him, to the passion involved in the decades-long building of the magnificent cathedrals of Europe.
Sirianni is president of Verner Johnson Inc. in Boston and is the man in charge of designing Discovery Park of America. A Pittsburgh native, he is the son of an artist and is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University in that city. He also earned a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard.
He has been designing museums for more than 30 years and he clearly loves his work.
“When I think about museums I’ve done around the country, I’m humbled, because they are resources for so many people. We’ve estimated that over the 30 years the firm has been doing this kind of work, more than 14 million people visit our designs each year. That makes you feel good, because they are coming and they are receiving something. Museums are basically all about education — not just for children, the adults get a lot of learning, as well.”
For Sirianni, the link with the grand cathedrals is one of collaboration with others who are deeply invested in the project.
“What really excites me in every project,” he says, “is the fact that you do all this work and you produce a lot of documents. You get support from engineers and put it all together. And then you have thousands of individuals build it. So it’s not unlike the cathedrals. It’s great to engage them and see them working on this thing, to see their pride of workmanship — and the builders’ pride is just that. That’s what stands out. It’s inherent in a museum, because there is a collective goal that involves pride. You see that in the workers, and it takes all of them to build it.”
Sirianni’s work in Union City began in January 2010, when the decision was made to place the project conceived by Robert E. and Jenny D. Kirkland of Union City under the control of the Boston firm.
The 50-acre site purchased by the Kirkland foundation in 2007 for the future home of a multi-million dollar education-entertainment-tourism complex had seen some ground work and some concrete poured following a summer of 2008 groundbreaking effort, but subsequent problems with the original architect had put the project on hold for several months.
Meanwhile, work continued apace on the I-69 superhighway link that was to form one of the main boundaries of the complex in the city’s northwest quadrant, along with Everett Boulevard.
For the past 21 months, Sirianni and Brad Nederhoff, managing principal for the firm, have been completing the design for the centerpiece Discovery Center and working with landscape architect Ritchie Smith of Ritchie Smith Associates in Memphis; civil engineer Bob J. Safin of TLM Associates in Jackson; exhibit designers Tom Hennes, Madeline Chinnici and Julie Chung of Thinc Design of New York; exhibit builder Curt Cederquist of Maltbie Exhibits of Mount Laurel, N.J.; SSR mechanical engineers from Memphis; general contractor Allen Searcy Builder Contractor Inc. of Union City; and several area subcontractors, including Coffey Construction of Hickman, Ky., who is constructing the land forms.
Documentation for the project was approved by the State of Tennessee and codes have been met, including the stringent ones in effect in this area which necessitate making buildings earthquake compliant.
Workers skilled in turning concrete into forms that will support the project rising from former farm land for many, many years have been pouring over the acreage for weeks now, according to project manager Jim Carmichael, who said the work is progressing well with no set-backs. He added that he is looking to the delivery and the erection of structural steel at the end of October.
With design work complete, Sirianni knows his job now revolves around clarification and final material selection, plus making sure the construction effort matches the design documents. And then there is the day-to-day work of responding to “issues.”
“We have three people at the office responding to issues and questions,” Sirianni says.
Some of the most important concrete work has been carried out in the area that will serve as the base of the 120-foot tower that is the centerpiece of the design.
 Its 10 levels have taken about a week each to complete. That finished tower will feature an exhibition room with 360 views and an outdoor deck with a glass floor.
Concrete foundations for the building’s columns have also been completed.
Then there are the 12-inch thick walls around the magnificent tower’s elevator, which structural engineers have designed based on the necessity to bear the immense load. A staircase will eventually wrap around the “tube” or “box” housing that elevator.
Concrete work is on schedule to be completed by the end of November. Then comes the steel frame, followed by walls composed of steel studs with insulation and sheathing — all finished off with special metal panels.
Drawings of the “envelope” or metal panels of the building will be used by the special fabricators providing the pieces to do their own shop drawings before they start actual manufacture of the panels. Careful checking and revising of that metal work will also be part of the architect’s responsibility.
“There is an absolute uniqueness about this project,” he says. “I’ve worked in St. Louis, Florida, Virginia and other places for years, but this is unique because a small community is putting out the same size and quality of museum you would get in a much larger city.”
From a purely creative standpoint, he adds, he is excited because the flat landscape of the area will allow the site to have enormous prominence. “There’s no architect who wouldn’t be pleased about that. It’s like you’re building up in the air and there’s nothing around it.”
The construction materials — the metal and glass — Sirianni is using are familiar by their nature, but the flamboyant, curving roof forms that are a part of this design are unique, he says. “It’s custom and it’s special. It’s a relatively simple building with flamboyant roof forms. Those roof forms are less expensive than a lot of other ways to shape the building because they have no floor loads.”
Sirianni has been fascinated by architecture since he was in high school. Artistic ability seemed to flow toward him from his father and he was aware of that at an early age.
That talent blended with his admiration for builders and, he says, architecture proved to be a good melding of the two passions. “You have to have the academics and you have to understand the building process. I felt the requirements of architecture fit my talents and desires.”
“In effect, we sculpt inside and out. The grand hall in Discovery Center is a grand piece of sculpture. It has to be real. There has to be science beneath the art. It’s so multi-faceted with such incredible layers. And it demands lots of support from other disciplines,” he adds.
If construction stays on schedule, the project should be completed by early 2013.
But before that time, once the steel is all in place, there will likely be a small ceremony involving the workers. It will be built around “topping out the steel,” meaning that particular building material has been installed at its highest level.
At that ceremony, an American flag will go up.
It’s a tradition.
Sirianni has taken part in such events many times.
The thrill never goes away.
Mrs. Caudle may be contacted at

Published in The Messenger 10.12.11

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